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California agencies offer Colorado River water savings

Four water agencies that rely on the parched Colorado River say they're willing to cut their use by about one-tenth.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California water agencies that rely on the parched Colorado River said Wednesday they can reduce their use by one-tenth starting in 2023 in response to calls for cuts from the federal government.

The agencies, which supply water to farmers and millions of people in Southern California, laid out their proposal in a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior. It comes as drought continues to diminish the river, and months after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation first called on users to voluntarily limit their reliance on it.

California shares the river's water with six other states, tribes and Mexico. It's has rights to the single largest share and is the last to lose water in times of shortage.

>Video above from September: Front Range cities try to do their part to conserve water from the Colorado River.

The proposal to cut 400,000 acre feet annually marks the first time California water agencies are publicly and formally indicating what they're willing to give up since federal officials demanded cuts this summer. California has been under pressure from other states to figure out how to use less as river reservoirs drop so low they risk losing the ability to generate hydropower and deliver water.

An acre-foot of water is enough to supply about two households for a year. California is entitled to 4.4 million acre feet of Colorado River water each year.

“While a broad multi-state agreement to conserve water across the Basin has not been reached, the California agencies propose to take voluntary action now to conserve water in coming months,” the California agencies wrote.

Credit: AP
A small pond sits between a field irrigated with water from the All-American Canal and a highway, Sunday, Aug. 14, 2022, near Brawley, Calif. The canal conveys water from the Colorado River into the Imperial Valley. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

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The letter was scant on details. The agencies said they have “a collection of proposed water conservation and water use reduction opportunities" that would help keep more water in Lake Mead, one of the river's key reservoirs. The letter did not list any specific projects.

The agencies would also expect to be paid for the savings with money from the federal Inflation Reduction Act, which included $4 billion for drought relief. The letter doesn't specify a rate of payment the agencies are expecting.

Four California water agencies take water from the river: The Imperial Irrigation District, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Coachella Valley Water District and the Palo Verde Irrigation District.

The irrigation district in California’s Imperial Valley receives a larger share of the river than any other entity. It’s the only source of water for crops in California’s southeastern desert, where many of the nation’s winter vegetables, like broccoli, as well as feed crops like alfalfa are grown.

Runoff from the irrigation district also feeds the Salton Sea, a lake in Southern California created in 1905 when the Colorado River overflowed. Once a destination, the lake has been drying up in recent decades, exposing residents to harmful dust and harming ecosystems.

“Voluntary water conservation actions outlined in this letter depends on a clear federal commitment to contribute meaningfully to stabilization efforts at the Salton Sea," the agencies wrote.

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